Estimated reading time — 11 minutes
I’ve lived in Central Florida my whole life. Disney World, mosquitos, the beach and flip flops are a way of life. I’m used to the sticky hot humidity, the gator filled swamps and the tea stained water of the St. Johns river. This is where my tale takes place; horrifying and unbelievable, yet true …
I don’t know when I first heard tale of the Dead Zone, a stretch of interstate four between Sanford and Debary Florida. Legend has it that the founders who settled in the area became ill of Yellow Fever residing in the mosquito infested lagoons and scrub of palmettos, which is where they succumbed to the abyss named Death and found their final resting place. For over a century, their plots were marked with wooden crosses and they owned their own place amongst the moss draped oaks. There’s lots of tales surrounding these graves; some say a man tried to remove the fencing that was at some point placed around the markers and that very night his house burned down. Another account alleges that a curious young boy tried to dig up one of the graves and was killed by a drunk driver shortly after. Myth or truth, i’m not sure. Many years later, when the developers came in and wanted to build what us Floridians call I4, they were sworn to build the road around the graves of the settlers, as to not disturb them. They agreed with a handshake and a smile, but as we all know, their intentions were set before the empty promise was made. Instead, they opted for what was easy and logical, disturbing and paving overtop of the burial site. The tale goes to tell of ghostly sightings, travelers dealing with late night car troubles and more accidents on that stretch of road than you can imagine, all at the consequence of the deceitful agreement that disturbed the dead.
Now, I’ve never been one to really buy in to the paranormal and I’ve driven this stretch of road hundreds of times. I’ve witnessed several accidents and broken down vehicles on the shoulder but never did I feed into the “Dead Zone” theory. If every disturbed grave became a ghost story, we’d have more tales to tell than we could keep up with. But, what I witnessed with my own eyes, driving that stretch of busy road, peering over the St. Johns River bridge, is something I will never forget, something I cannot shake and something that has forever changed me and my view of the paranormal.
It began over a year ago when I had just started a new job. I had to drive past the Dead Zone, exiting right across the bridge at the Sanford exit. I4 can be a white knuckle experience, especially if you have to drive it daily, but the part I always enjoyed was approaching my exit, breathing a sigh of relief that I had not been victim of any road rage or accidents and peering off the bridge into the murky brown waters below. Something about the way the sun shone down, reflecting itself in sparkling ribbons across the gator infested stretch, lily pads dancing with every swirl and breeze across the water, boats drifting lazily while fishermen cast another line, made me feel at peace. It was early on that I noticed the two houseboats floating aside the lily pads. I had seen them before, many times in fact, but it was after starting the job and having it be a part of my daily drive that I began to wonder how long the boats had been there. They looked abandoned, old and decaying. I remember thinking “who comes to rescue deserted vessels or do they float along until they sink?” …
The houseboats troubled me, for no apparent reason other than the fact that they had become a stationary landmark on the waters that upset my peaceful feeling with a darker and more foreboding impression. I could imagine what horrors lay behind the surface and in my mind’s eye I saw a mummified corpse, jaw locked open, forever staring into eternity. Abandoned. Forgotten. Surely the owners of the boats hadn’t jumped into the waters and swam to shore and left their boats cast off into the lily pads to sit until … Until what? I could only imagine the poor soul who decided to one day board the craft to discover my dreamed-up corpse. Perhaps, more than one corpse.
And then just like that, one day, one of my sinister houseboats were no longer there. I almost couldn’t believe my eyes as I was sure it had been there for as long as I could remember and there was no way the motor on the boat would still run. It had been there the previous morning, though I couldn’t be certain that it had been there on my way home as I was going in the opposite direction and could not see to that side of the bridge. I tried to imagine what had gone down as I made my way to the office and parked my car. A coworker of mine was exiting her car as I pulled up and I decided to ask her if she had ever noticed the boats, since she drove the same stretch of road that I did. I made my inquiry and to my surprise she informed me that she had noticed the boats and she had also seen a tenant of one of the boats out on his deck, sweeping. I was shocked. Never, in all the years I had seen the boats, had I ever witnessed a living soul on or around them, but she swore to seeing what appeared to be an older gentlemen on it’s deck.
“He was definitely there” she stated. “I know what you mean about the boats looking abandoned but there was for sure a man on board, sweeping off the deck. Have you noticed how the lily pads have gotten thicker around them and are almost vining up the boat?”.
I had not noticed, Not really. I knew the boats were in the thicket of lily pads but I hadn’t noticed them getting thicker. No, my attention seemed to be on the boats and only the boats anymore. I no longer watched the sun dappled waters and the fishermen’s lines. Now, I watched the boats, searching for signs of life, imagining horrors that I had drummed up in my mind. And now that there was just one boat, I couldn’t fathom where the other boat went. Perhaps, whoever comes for old abandoned boats had finally come and taken it away and would be back for the remaining boat another day.
Weeks went by. The houseboat didn’t occupy all of my thoughts but I did perk up when approaching the bridge and I did make sure to be in the far right lane for the full length of the bridge till my exit. I wanted to see the boat. I had to see the boat. I wanted to see if there were signs of life or movement or anything to prove that it actually had someone aboard. The lily pads did seem to thicken and the words “vining up the boat” seemed fitting. They appeared to be growing right up the side. I didn’t think that lily pads could do that. I thought they grew on top of the water but did not have the ability to vine out or attach themselves to a boat. Some days I thought surely my eyes were playing tricks on me.
Then one day, there was a man! Yes, a man aboard the boat with what appeared to be a broom pushing the lily pads off the side of the boat back towards the water. I tried to slow a bit before reaching my exit. I was in shock that for one, there was actually a person who must have been living inside of the boat, yet I had never before seen and two, that the lily pads seemed to be infesting the waters by the boat and overtaking its side. The man continued to push at the lily pads and I watched until I had to turn into my exit and could no longer see him or the boat.
Day by day I grew more uneasy when reaching the bridge. I never saw signs of life near the boat again but I still continued to watch it. I guess you could say I was fascinated by it and my mind worked up horror tales that gently rocked the waters of my mind, although I supposed it was just a dilapidated home on the water for some lonely old man. It did seem that the lily pads were making themselves even more of a nuisance and eventually they reached the front railing of the boat and were tangled all around it. Each day they seemed to claim another inch of it’s surface.
My horrors came to life one humid August morning. There were very few cars on the road at this early of an hour and the only reason I was coming in to work so early was to make up for some hours missed earlier in the week. The sun had barely breached the horizon, leaving shadows in the corners where the predawn light still couldn’t reach. I approached the bridge with sudden apprehension, as if my mind knew there was something sinister going on before my eyes could bear witness. As soon as I could see the water, I saw the mass of lily pads that had grown up over the top of the boat. The entire boat seemed to be covered by them and they were seething, writhing and wrapping themselves tightly around the vessel. In a matter of seconds, the boat appeared to give in and with a screech of twisted metal and a loud crack it was crushed as though it were nothing more than an aluminum soda can pulled down into the murky waters. The last thing I saw before reaching my exit was a bubbling, rippling mass and a few gentle waves that rocked the surface where the boat had been just moments before.
In hindsight, I’m surprised I didn’t stop my car right there in the middle of the bridge’s right lane because my mind was racing and my heart was pounding and I felt sick and uncertain all at the same time.
Did I just witness a mass of seemingly alive lily pads eat a houseboat?
The thought swarmed my mind, echoing itself over and over again as I drove down the exit ramp. As I reached the light at the bottom of my exit, instead of heading to work, I turned toward the boat ramp near where the houseboat had been anchored, driving with reckless abandon and throwing dust and gravel in my wake before coming to a halt. I don’t remember getting out of the car but I remember running toward the water. I saw no sign of the boat nor the man who lived on the boat and by now the sun’s rays were starting to peek over the treetops and land in the dark places. The tree line most likely prevented my view of where the houseboat had once been and there was no way I was going to enter the water to wade out until I could see something. The world seemed to stop for a moment and I thought I was going to faint. I could hear the rush of blood in my ears and my heart throbbing in my head but the outer world was quiet. In one rush, it all came back; the noise of the cars on the bridge, the water lapping at the shore and birds singing and chirping. I leaned forward and vomited.
I called the police once I was able to form a coherent thought. I told them what I had witnessed. I told them it was unbelievable but true. I stayed at the boat ramp until they came and took a statement from me but I could see the way the officer’s looked at each other and by the tone of their voice and the way they spoke to me that they didn’t believe a word of what I was saying. They asked if I was on any medications or had a history of mental disorders. I disputed both and pleaded with them to have divers search the water. They assured me they would look into it. I felt like I was speaking in slow motion and watching the two officers constantly exchange sideways glances made me want to punch them in the face. They didn’t believe me and it was obvious. In their defense, I probably wouldn’t have believed me either had I not been the one to witness it. Eventually, they left but not after asking if I had someone who could pick me up since I seemed shaken. I told them no, I didn’t, but I would be fine. I sat in my car and turned the air conditioning on as high as it would go and leaned my seat back. I guess I fell asleep.
I couldn’t have been asleep long but I did dream. I dreamt I was sitting at the water’s edge with people I had never met. The river’s embankment allowed my feet to dangle over the dark brown water and the smell in the air was stagnant with undertones of rotting vegetation. The world seemed muted as if in tones of sepia and my heart was beating fast. I felt nervous but I didn’t know why. No one was talking, just staring out at the water. Everything was still and silent other than the buzzing I heard from mosquitoes. The buzzing seemed intolerable as if it were coming from the inside of my head. I could feel the mosquitoes swarming and lighting on me. I slapped one from my legs and it exploded in a burst of dark red blood. I felt a trickle of sweat from behind my knees. It was all so very real. Other than being able to move my hands and slightly turn my head, I felt frozen in place. I knew I couldn’t stand up, let alone move or run. The heat was getting unbearable and the air was so thick I thought I would suffocate. I looked beside me and there was a man leaning against a tree. He was obviously not from this era as his clothes were old fashioned and dingier than anything anyone these days would wear. There were some children and a woman sitting by the water’s edge as well. They never looked my way or spoke a word, just stared blankly toward the water. Finally, the man looked straight at me with a bone chilling stare and spoke with a voice both cold and hollow, “The road to hell has been paved with lies and deceit. We no longer sleep. It never ends.” Before I even realized what was happening, he had grabbed me by the hair and pushed me forward toward the water. My hands grabbed at the dirt and leaves but the struggle was futile. I felt myself falling and hit the water, breaking the surface like crashing through a dirty window, sinking, unable to breathe, being drug deeper into the depths of water and muck …
I awoke with a start, sweating profusely, my car no longer running. No more than thirty minutes had passed since I had gotten in and cranked it up. As I set my seat back in the upright position and started to turn the key, I looked down to see a smudge of blood right where I had slapped the mosquito in my dream.
A few weeks later, while watching the news, I heard a body was found in Lake Monroe, which is fed by the St. Johns River right across the bridge I drove over daily. The body appeared to have been gnawed on by alligators which is creepy enough but what was worse was that no one had been reported missing, the body had no ID and no one could figure out who it was. He was a nobody that nobody missed. I wondered if it was my older guy from the houseboat. I guess I’ll never know.
I eventually quit the job I was working, not for any related reason, although the drive to work now brought much stress and trepidation and nausea swept over me every time I reached the bridge. I would find my eyes locked on the spot where the houseboat had once been and more than once, I came close to rear ending another car. I could hear the words, “It never ends …”, the gravel and furry in his voice as he spit them at me. Part of me thought that one day the bridge would just disintegrate as I was crossing it and I would plummet downwards to be swallowed whole into a watery grave. I now avoid this stretch of road at all cost. I’ve always heard we should face our fears but in this case, I find I can’t.
I never found out if the houseboat was recovered. I don’t think anyone ever looked for it. I called the Sanford PD once to check on the status of the report I filed. The lady I spoke with put me on hold and when she came back on the line she told me it was pending investigation then threw in a “You alright, Doll?”. I told her I was fantastic and figured I was probably the butt of a good joke to them and decided not to call back.
Aside from recounting my story to two people close to me, I’ve never uttered a word about it to a soul. Am I crazy? Did I witness something beyond the realm of reality? Or did the Dead Zone come alive and claim a few more victims? Because even though I wasn’t physically harmed, I consider myself a victim of it’s lore. I know my dream was of the early settlers. I know I witnessed a mass of lily pads come alive and swallow a boat. I know I’m not crazy. But I will never be the same.
So, if you’re ever in Central Florida and you drive the stretch of interstate four, somewhere between Orlando and Daytona Beach, know that there is more than meets the eye. There is a tale that keeps telling itself, in more ways than one and it wants to be heard. The road to hell was paved with lies and deceit. And just a word of advice: stay out of those waters … there are things more dangerous than the mosquitoes, snakes and alligators. I’ve seen for myself.
Credit: F. Maven